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Archives of Sexual fichavior, Vol. 23, No. I, 1994 

False Rape Allegations 

Eugene J. Kanin, Ph.D. 1 

With the cooperation of the police agency of a small metropolitan community, 
45 consecutive, disposed, false rape allegations covering a 9 year period were 
studied. These false rape allegations constitute 41% the total forcible rape cases 
(n = 109) reported during this period. These false allegations appear to sen>e 
three major functions for the complainants: providing an alibi, seeking revenge, 
and obtaining sympathy and attention. False rape allegations are not the 
consequence of a gender-linked aberration, as frequently claimed, but reflect 
impulsive and desperate efforts to cope with personal and social stress 

KICV WORDS: rape; sexual assault; unrounded rape; rape mythology. 


Of the many controversies surrounding the crime of rape, no more 
(horny issue arises than that dealing with false allegations. Generally, this 
issue is couched in terms of unfounded rape. However, we arc not 
addressing that concept here since unfounded rape is not usually the 
equivalent of false allegation, in spite of widespread usage to that effect. 
There is ample evidence, frequently ignored (see MacDonald, 1971; 
Brownmiller, 1975), that in practice, unfounded rape can and docs mean 
many things, with false allegation being only one of them, and sometimes 
the least of them. Other factors that are typically responsible for 
unfounded declarations are victim's late reporting to the police, lack of 
corroborating evidence, lack of cooperation by the victim and/or witnesses, 
reporting in the wrong jurisdiction, discrepancies in the victim's story, 
wrong address given by the victim, victim's drunkenness, victim's drug 
usngc, victim's being thought a prostitute, victim's uncertainty of events, 

'Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Purdue University, 1365 Winthrop V.. Stone 
Mall, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907- J 365. 


WXM OOO2/94/O20O 008t $07.00/0 O 1994 Plenum Publishing Corporation 


KiHt til 

victim's belligerence (Clark and Lewis, 1977; Hunch, 1977- Katz and 
Mazur, 1979; Kanin, .985; LaFree, 1989). In sum, the foregoing argdv 
represent those conditions that could seriously frustrate efforts to Jrest 
and/or conv.ct the offender. This paper deals exclusively with false rape 
allegations: the mtentional reporting of a forcible rape by an alleged victim 
when no rape had occurred. 

False rape charges have probably been in existence as long as the 
concep of rape. However, in the 20th century, medical jurisprudence saw 
a new development that enabled false allegations to be viewcJ as a singular 
instance of gender-related lying, something quite different in nature from 
the alse accusat.ons or robbery or burglary that were made by men. In 
short, false rape accusations became a reflection of a unique condition of 
women, not unhke that of kleptomania (Abelson, 1989). This new devel- 
opment was the masochistic nature of woman doctrine, a perspective that 
assumed women had a subconscious desire for rape, as evidenced by their 
rape (Freud, 1933; Deutsch, 1944; Homey, 1933), and tlJ neu- 
rotic mdmduals would convert their fantasies into actual beliefs and 
memory falsification (for an extensive and critical treatment of this per- 
spective, see Edwards, 1981, 1983; Kanin, 1982; Bessmer, 1984) In 
add.t.on, some mfluential medical figures adopted the position that false 
rape .">»egat,ons were widespread (Menninger, 1933; Guttmacher and Wei- 
!«T y legal Sd,oIars «n«>«siastically endorsed this medical 
pos.don (W.gmore, 1940; Juliver, I960; Comment, 1973; Hibey, 1973) and 
commonly recommended that rape complainants be routinely subjected to psv- 
ch.atr.c exam nation , in order to determine their truthfulness (Guttmacher and 
We.hofen, 1952; Sherwin, 1973; Comment, 1973). An American Bar committee offered a similar recommendation to this effect as 
early as 1937-1938 (Weihofen, 1959). 

>» legal literature, pseudologia plutntaatica became the authoritn- 
ive scientific label for the condition responsible for false rape reporting 
(GraMewski, 1958; Juliver, 1960). Pseudologia phantastica was described 
as a Delusional state in which the complainant truly believes that she had 
been raped although no rape, and perhaps no sexual contact of any kind 

. t t ?J e ",S aCC ' SinCC ShC firmly be,ieves t,,is non - facf . her s»ory is un- 
shakable (Bessmer, 1984). Less pretentious legal scholars made the same 

rT", ^a?f?L m ~ king references to ^lusional and hysterical states 
(Smith, 1953-1954; Comment, 1970). In recent years, however, possibly as 
a response to the women's movement, members of the mental health and 
cgal community have become markedly less likely to express such a posi- 
tion on false rape allegations. In England, judges still rather freely comment 
on the mendacious nature of women (Lowe, 1984). 

Fnlsr Knpe Alfcpnllons 

Currently, the two main identifiable adversaries involved in the false 
rape allegations controversy are the feminists and the police. The feminists 
are by far the most expressive and prominent on this issue. Some feminists 
take the position that the declaration of rape as false or unfounded largely 
means that the police do not believe the complainant; that is, the rape 
charges are real reflections of criminal assault, but the agents of the 
criminal justice system do not believe them (Brown miller, 1975; Russell, 
1984). Some feminists virtually deny the existence of false rape accusations 
and believe the concept itself constitutes discriminatory harassment toward 
women (see Grano, 1990). On the other hand, police are prone to say 
the reason for not believing some rape complainants resides in the faii 
that the rapes never occurred (Payton, 1967; Wilson, 1978; Jay, 1991). 
Medical Examiners lend support to this police position by emphasizing 
the ever-present possibility that rape complainants may be lying (Shiff, 
1969, 1971). 

The purpose of this paper is to report our findings on the incidence 
and dynamics of false rape allegations from a long-term study of one city's 
policy agency. 


This investigation is essentially a case study of one police agency in 
a small metropolitan area (population = 70,000) in the Midwestern United 
States. This city was targeted for study because it offered an almost model 
laboratory for studying false rape allegations. First, its police agency is not 
inundated with serious felony cases and, therefore, has the freedom and 
the motivation to record and thoroughly pursue all rape complaints. In fact, 
agency policy forbids police officers to use their discretion in deciding 
whether to officially acknowledge a rape complaint, regardless how suspect 
that complaint may be. Second, the declaration of a false allegation follows 
a highly institutionalized procedure. The investigation of all rape com- 
plaints always involves a serious offer to polygraph the complainants and 
the suspects. Additionally, for a declaration of false charge to be made, 
the complainant must admit that no rape had occurred. She is the sole 
agent who can say that the rape charge is false. The police department 
will not declare a rape charge as false when the complainant, for whatever 
reason, fails to pursue the charge or cooperate on the case, regardless how 
much doubt the police may have regarding the validity of the charge. In 
short, these cases are declared false only because the complainant admitted 
they are false. Furthermore, only one person is then empowered to enter 
into the records a formal declaration that the charge is false, the officer 



in charge of records. Last, it should be noted that this department does 
not confuse reported rape attempts with completed rapes. Thus, the rape 
complainants referred to in this paper are for completed forcible rapes 
only. The foregoing leaves us with a certain confidence that cases declared 
false by this police agency are indeed a reasonable — if not a minimal — 
reflection of false rape allegations made to this agency, especially when 
one considers that a finding of false allegation is totally dependent upon 
the recantation of the rape charge. 

We followed and investigated all false rape allegations from 1978 to 
1987. A ranking police official notified us whenever a rape charge was 
declared false and provided us with the records of the case. In addition, 
the investigating officers provided any requested supplementary information 
so that we could be confident of the validity of the false rape allegation 


Incidence of False Allegations 

Widely divergent viewpoints are held regarding the incidence of false 
rape reporting (Katz and Mazur, 1979). For example, reports set the figure 
from lows of 0.25% (O'Reilly, 1984) and 1% (Krasner et aL t 1976) to highs 
of 80-90% (Bronson, 1918; Comment, 1968) and even 100% (see Kanin, 
1985). All of these figures represent releases from some criminal justice 
agency or are estimates from clinical practitioners. The extraordinary range 
of these estimates makes a researcher suspect that inordinate biases are at 

Regarding this study, 41% (n = 45) of the total disposed rape cases 
(/i = 109) were officially declared false during this 9-year period, that is, 
by the complainant's admission that no rape had occurred and the charge, 
therefore, was false. The incidence figure was variable from year to year 
and ranged from a low of 27% (3 out of 11 cases) to a high of 70% (7 
out of 10 cases). The 9-year period suggests no trends, and no explanation 
has been made for the year-to-year fluctuation. 

Although very little information exists regarding the characteristics of 
the complainant, some data can be offered. These false complainants are 
all white, largely of lower socioeconomic background, and the majority were 
modestly educated. Only three complainants had any education beyond 
high school. The mean age of these women was 22. On the basis of the 
limited information available, these women could not be distinguished from 
those whose complaints were recorded as valid. 

Fnlsc Rape Allegations 


The study of these 45 cases of false rape allegations inexorably led 
to the conclusion that these false charges were able to serve three major 
functions for the complainants: providing an alibi, a means of gaining re- 
venge, and a platform for seeking attention/sympathy. This tripartite model 
resulted from the complainants' own verbalizations during recantation and 
does not constitute conjecture. Of course, we are not asserting that these 
functions are mutually exclusive or exhaustive; rather, these rape recanta- 
tions focused on a single factor explanation. A possible objection to these 
recantations concerns their validity. Rape recantations could be the result 
of the complainants' desire to avoid a "second assault" at the hands or the 
police. Rather than proceed with the real charge of rape, the argument 
goes, these women withdrew their accusations to avoid the trauma of police 

Several responses are possible to this type of criticism. First, with very 
few exceptions, these complainants were suspect at the time of the com- 
plaint or within a day or two after charging. These recantations did nol 
follow prolonged periods of investigation and interrogation that would con- 
stitute anything approximating a second assault. Second, not one of the 
detectives believed that an incident of false recantation had occurred. They 
argued, rather convincingly, that in those cases where a suspect was iden- 
tified and interrogated, the facts of the recantation dovetailed with the 
suspect's own defense. Last, the policy of this police agency is to apply a 
statute regarding the false reporting of a felony. After the recant, the com- 
plainant is informed that she will be charged with filing a false complaint, 
punishable by a substantial fine and a jail sentence. In no case, has an 
effort been made on the part of the complainant to retract the recantation. 
Although we certainly do not deny the possibility of false recantations, no 
evidence supports such an interpretation for these cases. 

Alibi Function 

Of the 45 cases of false charges, over one-half (56%, n = 27) served 
the complainants' need to provide a plausible explanation for some sud- 
denly foreseen, unfortunate consequence of a consensual encounter, usually 
sexual, with a male acquaintance. An assailant is identified in approximately 
one half of these cases. Representative cases include the following: 

An unmarried 1 6-year-old female had sex with her boyfriend and lalcr became 
concerned that she might be pregnant. She said she had been raped by an unknown 
assailant in the hopes that the hospital would give her something to abort the 
possible pregnancy. 


Kan in 

A married 30-year-old female reported that she had been raped in her apartment 
complex. During the polygraph examination, she admitted that she was a willing 
partner. She reported that she had been raped because her partner did not stop 
before ejaculation, as he had agreed, and she was afraid she was pregnant. Her 
husband is overseas. 

The above cases are prototypical cases where the fear of pregnancy is para- 
mount in motivating the rape charge. This theme is constant, only the sce- 
nario changes in that the lover is black, the husband is out of state on a 
job, the husband had a vasectomy, the condom broke. Only three cases 
deviated from this tradition: 

A divorced female, 25 years of age, whose parents have custody of her 4 -year-old 
child. She lost custody at the time of her divorce when she was declared an unfit 
mother. She was out wilh a male friend and got into a fight. He blackened her eye 
and cut her lip. She claimed she was raped and beaten by him so that she could 
explain her injuries. She did not want to admit she was in a drunken brawl, as this 
admission would have jeopardized her upcoming custody hearing. 

A 16-ycar-old complainant, her girlfriend, and two male companions were having 
a drinking parly at her home. She openly invited one of the males, a casual friend, 
to have sex with her. Later in the evening, two other male acquaintances dropped 
in and, in the presence of all, her sex partner "bragged" that he had just had sex 
with her. She quickly ran out to another girlfriend's house and told her she had 
been raped. Soon, her mother was called and the police were notified. Two days 
later, when confronted with the contradictory stories of her companions, she 
admitted that she had not been raped. Her charge of rape was primarily motivated 
by an urgent desire lo defuse what surely would be public information among her 
friends at school the next day, her promiscuity. 

A 37-ycar-old woman reported having been raped "by some nigger." She gave 
conflicting reports of the incident on two occasions and, when confronted with 
these, she admitted lhat the entire story was a fabrication. She feared her boyfriend 
had given her "some sexual disease," and she wanted to be sent to the hospital to 
"get checked out." She wanted a respectable reason, i.e., as an innocent victim of 
rape, to explain the acquisition of her infection. 


Essentially, this category involved a false rape report as a means of 
retaliating against a rejecting male. Twenty-seven percent (/t = 12) of the 
cases clearly seemed to serve this function. These rejections, however, 
ranged from the very evident cases of women who were sexually and emo- 
tionally involved with a reciprocating male to those women who saw 
themselves spurned from what was in reality the females' unilateral involve- 
ment. Regardless, these women responded with a false rape charge to 
perceived rejections. Because the suspect is always identified, the false al- 
legations potentially pose the greatest danger for a miscarriage of justice. 
Examples of these types of cases are as follows: 

False Rape Allegations 


An 18-year-old wrJman was having sex with a boarder in her mother's house for a 
period of 3 months. When the mother learned of her behavior from other boarders, 
the mother ordered the man to leave. The complainant learned that her lover was 
packing and she went to his room and told him she would be ready to leave with 
him in an hour. He responded with "who the hell wants you." She briefly argued 
with him and then proceeded to the police station to report that he had raped her. 
She admitted the false charge during the polygraph examination. 

A 17-ycar-old female came to headquarters and said that she had been raped by 
a house parent in the group home in which she lived. A female house parcnl 
accompanied her to the station and told the police she did not believe that a rape 
had occurred. The complainant failed the polygraph examination and then admitted 
that she liked the house parent, and when he refused her advances, she reported 
the rape to "gel even with him." 

A 16-year-old reported she was raped, and her boyfriend was charged. She later 
admitted that she was "mad at him" because he was seeing another girl, and she 
"wanted to get him into trouble." 

Attcntion/Sympathy-CcUing Device 

Although this device seems to be the most extravagant use for which 
a false rape charge is made, it is also the most socially harmless in that 
no one was identified as the rapist. Approximately 18% (n - 8) of the 
false charges clearly served this function. The entire verbalization of the 
charge is, by and large, a fabrication without base. The following arc typical 

An unmarried female, age 17, abruptly left her girlfriends in the park one afternoon 
allegedly to go riding with a young man, a stranger she met earlier that morning 
who wanted her to smoke marijuana with him. Later that day, she told her friends 
she was raped by this man. Her friends reported the incident to the police, and 
the alleged victim went along with the rape charge because "I didn't want them to 
know that I lied to them." She explained that she manufactured this story because 
she wanted the attention. 

An unmarried female, age 17, had been having violent quarrels with her mother 
who was critical of her laziness and style of life. She reported that she was raped 
so that her mother would "get off my back and give me a little sympathy." 

An unmarried female, age 41, was in postdivorcc counseling, and she wanted more 
attention and sympathy from her counselor because she "liked him." She fabricated 
a rape episode, and he took her to the police station and assisted her in making 
the charge. She could not back out since she would have to admit lying to him. 
She admitted the false allegation when she was offered lo be polygraphed. 


In addition to the foregoing, certain other findings and observations 
relevant to false allegations warrant comment. First, false allegations failed 
to include accusations of forced sexual acts other than penile-vaginal inter- 



course. Not one complainant mentions forced oral or anal sex. In contrast, 
these acts were included in approximately 25% of the founded forcible rape 
complaints. Perhaps it was simply psychologically and socially more prudent 
for these women to minimize the humiliation of sexual victimization by not 
embroidering the event any more than necessary. This phenomenon has 
been observed previously (McDowell and Hibler, 1987). 

Second, although the literature liberally refers to various extortion 
scams as responsible for false rape charging (Comment, 1968; MacDonald, 
1973), no such cases were encountered or could even be recalled by mem- 
bers of the police agency. This type of case may very well be a period 
piece, or perhaps it was even then the exceptional case. Extraordinary at- 
tention would readily have been forthcoming since this theory nicely 
meshed with the position of prevailing authorities who stressed the omni- 
present threat of female cunning and stealth. One authority, (MacDonald, 
1973), for example, cited a 1918 article (Bronson) to illustrate a blackmail 
case since he never encountered one himself. 

In a similar vein, no apparent case of pseudologia phantastica sur- 
faced. The earlier view of a deluded complainant, tenaciously affirming her 
victimization, just does not appear here. These women were not inclined 
to put up a steadfast defense of their victimization, let alone pursue it into 
the courtroom. Recantation overwhelmingly came early and relatively 
easily. Certainly, false rape allegations can arise from a deluded condition 
but we failed to find indicators for what was once offered as the most com- 
mon explanation for false rape allegation. 

One of the most haunting and serious implications of false rape al- 
legations concerns the possibility of miscarried justice. We know that false 
convictions occur, but this study only tells us that these false accusers were 
weeded out during the veiy early stages of investigation. However encour- 
aging this result may be, we cannot claim that false charging does not incur 
suffering for the accused. Merely to be a rape suspect, even for a day or 
two, translates into psychological and social trauma. 


We feel that these false accusations can be viewed as the impulsive and 
desperate gestures of women simply attempting to alleviate understandable 
conditions of personal and social distress and that, as an aggregate, labels 
connoting pathology, e.g., delusional states, are uncalled for. One can be 
tempted to pigeonhole this type of conduct since we view it as extreme, as 
deviant, as criminally reckless. At first glance, false rape allegation seems 
to be a rather extreme gesture to satisfy alibi, revenge, or attention needs. 

False Rape Allegations 


Practitioners in the mental health and legal professions, however, will read- 
ily recognize that these false rape reports are not really exceptional 
exaggerations in light of what people rather commonly do in order to satisfy 
these same needs in other contexts. Consider the extravagant and perjurious 
accusations that routinely pepper divorce and child custody proceedings, 
and the inordinate departures from the truth that have accompanied crc- 
dentialed and respected political and corporate figures in their quest for 
recognition and office. And think of the petty and commonplace transgres- 
sions that people frequently verbalize as reasons for having committed 

No evidence exists to suggest that something unique or defective is 
in the female condition that prompts such behavior. Rather, something bio- 
logical, legal, and cultural would seem to make false rape allegations 
inevitable. If rape were a commonplace victimization experience of men, 
if men could experience the anxiety of possible pregnancy from illicit af- 
fairs, if men had a cultural base that would support their confidence in 
using rape accusations punitively, and if men could feel secure that vic- 
timization could elicit attention and sympathy, then men also would be 
making false rape accusations. 

Most problematic is the question of the generalizability of these find- 
ings from a single police agency handling a relatively small number of cases. 
Certainly, our intent is not to suggest that the 41% incidence found here 
be extrapolated to other populations, particularly in light of our ignorance 
regarding the structural variables that might be influencing such behavior 
and which could be responsible for wide variations among cities. But a far 
greater obstacle to obtaining "true'* incidence figures, especially for larger 
cities, would be the extraordinary variations in police agency policies (sec 
Comment, 1968; Newsweek, 1983; Pepinsky and Jesilow, 1984); variations 
so diverse, in fact, that some police agencies cannot find a single rape com- 
plaint with merit, while others cannot find a single rape complaint without 
merit. Similarly, some police agencies report alt of their unfounded rape 
cases to be due to false allegation, while other agencies report none of 
their unfounded declarations to be based on false allegation (Kanin, 1985). 
Some of these policies are really nothing more than statistical and proce- 
dural legerdemain. On the other hand, a degree of confidence exists that 
the findings reported here are not exaggerations produced by some sort of 
atypical population, that is, nothing peculiar exists about this city's popu- 
lation composition to suggest that an unusual incidence or patterning of 
false rape allegations would occur. This city is not a resort/reveling area 
or a center attracting a transient population of any kind, attributes that 
have been associated with false rape reporting (Wilson, 1978). The major 
culprit in this city may well be a police agency that seriously records and 


Kan in 

pursues to closure all rape complaints, regardless of their merits. We may 
well be faced with the fact that the most efficient police departments report 
the higher incidence of false rape allegations. In view of these factors, per- 
haps the most prudent summary statement that is appropriate from these 
data is that false rape accusations are not uncommon. Since this effort is 
the first at a systematic, long-term, on-site investigation of false rape alle- 
gations from a single city, future studies in other cities, with comparable 
policies, must assess the representativeness of these findings. 


In 1988, wc gained access to the police records of two large Midwest- 
ern state universities. With the assistance of the chief investigating officers 
for rape offenses, all forcible rape complaints during the past 3 years were 
examined. Since the two schools produced a roughly comparable number 
of rape complaints and false rape allegations, the false allegation cases were 
combined, n = 32. This represents exactly 50% of all forcible rape com- 
plaints reported on both campuses. Quite unexpectedly then, we find that 
these university women, when filing a rape complaint, were as likely to file 
a false as a valid charge. Other reports from university police agencies sup- 
port these findings (Jay, 1991). 

In both police agencies, the taking of the complaint and the follow-up 
investigation was the exclusive responsibility of a ranking female officer. 
Neither agency employed the polygraph and neither declared the complaint 
false without a recantation of the charge. Most striking is the patterning 
of the reasons for the false allegations given by the complainants, a pat- 
terning similar to that found for the nonstudent city complainants. 
Approximately one half (53%) of the false charges were verbalized as serv- 
ing an alibi function. In every case, consensual sexual involvement led to 
problems whose solution seemed to be found in the filing of a rape charge. 
The complaints motivated by revenge, about 44%, were of the same seem- 
ingly trivial and spiteful nature as those encountered by the city police 
agency. Only one complainant fell into the attention/sympathy category. 
These unanticipated but supportive parallel findings on university popula- 
tions suggest that the complications and conflicts of heterosexual involve- 
ments are independent of educational level. In fact, we found nothing sub- 
stantially different here from those cases encountered by our city police 

false Rape Allegations 



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